review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

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A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

Adapted and directed by Annie Ryan
From novel by Eimear McBride
Featuring Aoife Duffin
The Corn Exchange and Cusack Projects @ Baryshnikov Arts Center
April 20, 2016 – April 30, 2016 

production site

[featured image caption: Aoife Duffin. Image by Fiona Morgan.]

It’s impossible to experience A Girl is a Half-formed Thing without thinking of at least one among a series of other works on film or on stage that touch on the sexual vulnerability and rape of young women at the hands of adult men. One might conjure distressing images from Last Exit to Brooklyn — the 1964 novel and 1989 movie involving poverty, prostitution, and limited choices. Blackbird, a 2005 play currently revived on Broadway, inspired by a real case involving underage sex between a young girl and an adult male, disturbs in a 90-minute distressing unbroken confrontation 15 years later between the girl as an adult woman and her abuser. The play How I Learned to Drive provides another sort of some of the same dramatic material: a prepubescent girl who receives driving lessons from an alcoholic uncle who molests her and hopes for more when she grows to adulthood. Three relatively conventionally-plotted and framed stories that deal with female sexuality and empowerment and sexual violence and how we as a society grapple with it all. In these works of art, we consider other perspectives, understand other voices, embrace the world in which the actions are portrayed.

In the 80-minute theatrical run time of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing now in the second week of a short run at the Baryshnikov, we live the story of our main character, an unnamed female born into poverty, from toddler hood to young adulthood through a nonlinear wash of words from one performer portraying many characters. The 2014 novel by Eimear McBride recounts the life of the unnamed narrator as she deals with various forms of abuse (physical, sexual, psychological) and her unnamed brother as he struggles with cancer. This theatrical adaptation by director Annie Ryan is all narration, all dialogue, not quite entirely monologue as various speakers are reported from the young girl’s perspective. This stylistic choice leaves the stalwart and talented performer Aoife Duffin to embody many people in the story: mother, grandfather, brother, abusing uncle, other men, and the unnamed young woman protagonist herself. On an empty stage, with this script, this is a huge unevenly met challenge. We hear the pain and understand the main plot points, but can be distracted by the wash of words along the way that don’t always clearly convey theatrical meaning.

Stories of abuse, power differentials, bleak circumstances, and the powerless becoming empowered, have been told many times and in many ways in literature, on stage and in film. The examples listed at the top of this review are linear, dialogue-filled, multiple character and multiple actor creations. For the majority of run time in Ryan’s multiple-character, single-performer theatrical construction, we attempt to figure out what image is talking to us, and to identify the new voice narrating the girl’s story to us. We stand outside her life through her eyes watching the world outside, giving voice to the other people, rather than hearing the story through her consciousness.

The play’s beginning in which the female protagonist narrates her own birth, and the ending in which the protagonist narrates her own death, on the other hand, are perhaps the play’s most powerful, not only for their content. Birth and death. Their form is pure. We are provided a focused lens, and clarity of theatrical vision, that communicates the girl’s story straight to our heart. The story’s resolution of underwater poetic imagery and quietude and finality and solemn contentment still resonates for me.

(L-R) Annie Ryan, Eimear McBride, Aoife Duffin, Paige Reynolds. Post show discussion April 22, 2016, Baryshnikov Arts Center. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.
(L-R) Annie Ryan, Eimear McBride, Aoife Duffin, Paige Reynolds. Post show discussion April 22, 2016, Baryshnikov Arts Center. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

In a panel conversation after the performance I attended on April 22, 2016 at the Baryshnikov, director and adapter Annie Ryan, novelist Eimear McBride, and performer Aoife Duffin discuss some key dramaturgical dimensions of the piece with Paige Reynolds, professor of English Literature at the College of Holy Cross. Some details from that discussion follow from my recording and transcript of the event.

Decision and permission to adapt this piece. Annie Ryan’s prior success with literary stage adaptions won over McBride. “I gave her the gift of some very strict rules,” McBride noted. “I said she was not allowed to adapt the book. She was only allowed to cut the book. And she wasn’t allowed to change any of the language.”

Ryan noted that she was looking for a piece just like this one. “It was sort of a combination of technique and storytelling and material that I’ve always been drawn to, I suppose. There’s a theatrical tradition that I’ve been following in terms of the techniques I’ve been playing with over the years. The material seems to be drawn to the Chekhovian hole in our hearts. This is such an outcry, this piece. And it really took me by surprise. I was looking for what would be the next show and I read it and I thought: oh my god, I think this is it!”

Why this structure? Ryan always saw it as a one-woman show, but pushed back at the idea of it being a monologue. “I know it’s a monologue, but I think of it as like a movie. The whole way it’s staged is so that the movie is happening in her head. We were very much thinking about: well, what’s the shot? Looking at the girl looking at the uncle and we cut to him.”

Set design and staging. Ryan had some reflections on the bare stage, and how it fit into the body of work that her theater company, The Corn Exchange, had been doing for some time. “I didn’t know how to stage it, really, except I knew it should be on a kind of, some sort of Beckettian landscape. Not a naturalistic set in any way. But that was something that we’d been working with for a long time anyway, empty space and the idea that the actor can make anything happen by just doing it.”

McBride on novel origins. With McBride animal instinct and the flow of the language ruled. “There was no plotting or preparation or thought about what I should be doing or how I should be doing it. it was really about getting into a kind of animal instinct and trying to let the language be guided by the images, and then the images trying to be guided by the language. So it was certainly one I saw. And then I just read it aloud a lot.”

Balancing the content and the subject matter. Ryan described the effort to strike a balance in her adaptation as a juggling act with the source material, given her mandate not to add words and the need to cut to fit a piece into playable length, and with the audience. “The real thing was how much can an audience possibly take, how to keep in the room, how to keep your attention, to keep you keep from laughing too much or at all, to keep the ball in the air. And it was hard to lose so much material.”

Quality of language as the story proceeds. Novelist McBride reflected on the collapse of language that transpires as the story proceeds, which may contribute to an audience’s sense of being untethered in the storytelling landscape. “I think that as the story progresses, as it becomes apparent that the girl is not going to make an escape from the family and the society and break free and become fully formed, all the resources desert her. And language does that as well. So it begins to break down and fall away and collapse in on itself and become the ultimate betrayal. Because all of her life she fights with this, with the vocabulary that’s available to her, in this society in which to express these feelings that she has. And in the end deserts her.”

McBride’s influences and the power of anger. McBride saw inspiration in the theatrical work of Sarah Kane as she was writing her novel. “Sarah Kane was a very big influence. I was three weeks into writing the book when I saw a production of Cleansed, the first of hers I’d ever seen. And it had a huge impact on me. And I was amazed at the revelation of my own ignorance — at the age of 27 I hadn’t realized that it was all right for women to be angry and express it in a brutal way. And not be nice and okay and acceptable. I really loved that, the purity of that ferocity. I wanted that for my own work. So she’s a huge huge influence on me.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 26, 2016)

Playwright  and Director | Annie Ryan
Original Novel  | Eimear McBride
Set Design | Lian Bell
Costume Design | Katie Crowley
Lighting Design | Sinead Wallace
Sound Design + Original Music | Mel Mercier

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